In a recently published study in Psychological Science, experimenters found out that children as young as three can evaluate trustworthiness accurately, and as well as adults can by the time they are seven. There have also been studies showing that babies as young as six months can tell which adults are more helpful, and some one-year-olds will try to help someone who is struggling.
This research that children can discriminate will not shock many parents. A baby will show a preference for a person who is familiar over someone who is a stranger, and not someone who appears awkward or fake around them. A baby who is also consistently shown empathy absorbs this and is more likely to show it in turn. If we teach our children to unlearn their talent for natural discrimination because, say, we are embarrassed by their lack of manners, we are endangering them.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of seminal child-rearing books such as How to Talk So Kids will Listen, would not be surprised at this new research. They have been talking about the accuracy of children’s instincts for a while. When I was pregnant with my daughter (now 21) I turned to one of their books, Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, first published in 1974 which became important to me as I determined what my own parenting philosophy would be.
In it, they show why it is important to validate a baby’s and a child’s feelings. They put this in capital letters (it’s an American book): “WHEN FEELINGS ARE IDENTIFIED AND ACCEPTED, CHILDREN BECOME MORE IN TOUCH WITH WHAT IT IS THEY FEEL.”
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I don’t agree. Pyschopaths can be very convincing. They can fool adults. Indeed, that is one of their traits.